As each year winds down, we are inundated on TV and at the newsstand with lists of everything from most shocking events of the past year to who got married, divorced, had children, and of course, who died.
Most of this stuff really doesn’t impact us in any sort of personal way, and I find it fascinating that we pay such close attention to it. But I suppose it is a barometer by which we measure how quickly our own lives are going, and it takes attention away from what is real about that.
As I thought about writing today’s blog, I contemplated mentioning the usual celebrity and political passings, which were notable, but instead I started listing the people I actually knew who died, people who, in one way or another, impacted my life and career, most knowingly, but a couple maybe not as much so.
You probably won’t know any of these people, though there are two who were in the entertainment industry whom you might. I offer this mention of each of them, not to be macabre, but rather as a toast, if you will, to lives to be celebrated and presences that are missed…
Bernie Levy – the last of my remaining uncles, and beloved for making every get together a true party. Here is the tribute blog for a man whose presence was larger than life. And then there was one...
Gary David Goldberg – if you were ever a fan of the TV shows Family Ties, Spin City, or Brooklyn Bridge, then you are familiar with the work of Gary David Goldberg. But for me, even as much as his TV shows entertained me, it was his memoir, Sit Ubu Sit, which had the biggest impact on my life.
It is, to this day, my favorite book – not because of its profound literary nature, but because it was so unabashedly Gary David Goldberg. We teach people nothing if not by example, and after reading Sit Ubu Sit, I was able to complete my own memoir, In Search of George Stephanopoulos. When my book was finally published, I contacted Mr. Goldberg and thanked him. He responded immediately and I sent him a copy of my book.
Herbert Chatzky – if you’re a musician, chances are you’ve had many teachers in your lifetime, but there are always a couple who stand out. In the vast pantheon of teachers I took piano lessons from over the years, Herb Chatzky holds a fond place in my heart. Not because of some specific technique he taught me, or insight into the great classical masters whose work I studied under his tutelage, but mostly because he thought I could play the piano and imparted as much to me. He had a “sky’s the limit” approach to teaching. Get into one of the best schools in the country as a pianist? Sure! Be a concert pianist? Why not!!! While that was not the path I chose to stay with ultimately, I did get my degree in classical piano performance from Northwestern University, and I know that his “of course, you can!” mentality had something to do with that.
Ruth Rowles – was not someone I knew all that well. I met her maybe a handful of times. She was the wife of one of my collaborators, a man named Fred Rowles, with whom I’ve written a grand total of two songs. One of those songs, “No End to Love,” has had kind of an interesting ride. It’s been on hold for the likes of everyone from Faith Hill to Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. It’s been cut on a bunch of independent artists’ projects, but I myself have never recorded it. Until now. It will be on my forthcoming CD and I know that Fred and “Ruthie,” as he always called her, were ecstatic about that. And while I wish she had lived to hear the completed project, I know she will, nonetheless, from wherever she is.
EXCERPT FROM "Wanted: Heroes for Today's Children" by Joseph N. Bell, published in the Daily Pilot on December 21, 1990:
I didn't know Milli Vanilli from the Righteous Brothers, so I don't know why I consumed all the stories about the scam these two men ran on a lot of doting fans and the pop music industry. But I did--rather, I guess, for the same reasons I look at freeway accidents or cop stops. Curiosity.
The same curiosity led me to interrogate the young persons I drive to, and from, school occasionally about Milli Vanilli--and the later peccadilloes of the New Kids on the Block. I don't get the driving duty very often--only when my wife is unable to fulfill her car-pooling job. The kids talk among themselves on these rides, steadfastly ignoring me. Sometimes they talk about music--or sing it.
If I try to interject conversation, I'm usually regarded with a kind of startled surprise that I'm sharing the car with them. And the surprise turns quickly to resignation if I tell them--as I usually do--that I used to walk to school, frequently in deep snow, a greater distance than they are driven. And that riding the school bus is a form of character building from which they all might profit.
They sigh and wait until I'm done, apparently accepting this as an occasional price for being driven to school. Sometimes they ask if someone else is going to pick them up. Then they go back to their own talk--or significant silence--ignoring me again.
For these reasons, my driving companions were tough to interrogate about Milli Vanilli. It took me a while to get their attention and persuade them I wanted to talk about a topic that might be of at least marginal interest to them. These were all seventh-graders--two boys and a girl. Admittedly a small sample, but I can project as well as the next pollster.
First of all, they dismissed the New Kids on the Block out of hand. "Nobody," my stepson told me, "listens to them except kids in New York and Texas." This seemed a curious juxtaposition, and when I asked him where he had acquired this insight, he was vague about the source but certain of its validity. And the other two supported him absolutely, dripping contempt for the New Kids.
The contempt, however, didn't grow out of recent allegations that the New Kids plagiarize music, have management ties with the Mafia or punch out people on airplanes. My interviewees had no interest in these extracurricular activities. They just don't like the New Kids' music and assured me, without reservation, that no one else in their school did either.
Milli Vanilli, however, was another matter. All admitted to listening to their music, and my girl subject, name of Katie, likes it a lot. So, I asked them, did they feel angry, outraged, betrayed when they found out that Milli Vanilli was a fraud, taking credit for the skills of two anonymous singers?
None of these reactions applied. Katie called what Milli Vanilli did "stupid." My stepson, Erik, said it was "wrong" but he felt neither betrayed nor angry. Katie doesn't listen to Milli Vanilli recordings any more but said she would listen to the people who actually did the singing if they were to record. The joint reaction could best be described as a shrug. They were a very long way from the paper boy with the hole in his stocking and the tearful face who said, "Say it ain't so, Joe," to Shoeless Joe Jackson after baseball's Black Sox scandal. A very long way.
Luke said the Milli Vanilli scam didn't make him mad because "I could do the same thing they did. I can't sing either." Would he? "No." Why not? "Because I'd have to give my Grammy back."
Barbara Scheinbach – is kind of an odd choice for my list. She was a lovely old lady who lived a few blocks away and volunteered, along with my father, to do taxes for people through the AARP. She frequented our local diner and was always upbeat, with both a smile and a slight twinkle in her eyes. She was one of those people you always felt good being around. So her passing saddened me.
Oddly enough, Barbara made my list because of a story her daughter told about her at her funeral. I could not understand why her children were not wearing black to the funeral. But when her daughter got up to speak, she told a story of her mother coming to visit her for a month. Barbara, it seemed, summoned her daughter to their respective closets and said, “Look at your closet and look at mine.” Her daughter had no idea what exactly she was supposed to be looking for – tidiness? Organization? What? But then Barbara pointed out to her that her closet was filled with only black and white clothes, while Barbara’s closet contained every bright color of the rainbow. And she made her daughter promise that when she died, she would not wear the usual black color of mourning, but rather something bright and cheery.
I’ll be honest with you – I went home after that funeral and thought a lot about that – the metaphor this presented about how I wanted to live my life. And I knew that, though my own wardrobe is primarily black, I wanted to live my life in color. So I’m letting the cat out of the bag here and letting you know that “In Color” is not only a new song on my project, but it is the title as well.
So as we usher in the New Year, it is my hope that we honor the memories of those who graced our lives and left, by remembering to embody that which we most loved about them.
Peace and blessings to you all as we count down to 2014…